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The Painted King

Art, Activism, and Authenticity in Hawai`i

Glenn Wharton

Publication Year: 2012

The famous statue of Kamehameha I in downtown Honolulu is one of the state’s most popular landmarks. Many tourists—and residents—however, are unaware that the statue is a replica; the original, cast in Paris in the 1880s and the first statue in the Islands, stands before the old courthouse in rural Kapa‘au, North Kohala, the legendary birthplace of Kamehameha I. In 1996 conservator Glenn Wharton was sent by public arts administrators to assess the statue’s condition, and what he found startled him: A larger-than-life brass figure painted over in brown, black, and yellow with “white toenails and fingernails and penetrating black eyes with small white brush strokes for highlights. . . . It looked more like a piece of folk art than a nineteenth-century heroic monument.”

The Painted King is Wharton’s account of his efforts to conserve the Kohala Kamehameha statue, but it is also the story of his journey to understand the statue’s meaning for the residents of Kapa‘au. He learns that the townspeople prefer the “more human” (painted) Kamehameha, regaling him with a parade, chants, and leis every Kamehameha Day (June 11). He meets a North Kohala volunteer who decides to paint the statue’s sash after respectfully consulting with kahuna (Hawaiian spiritual leaders) and the statue itself. A veteran of public art conservation, Wharton had never before encountered a community that had developed such a lengthy, personal relationship with a civic monument. Going against the advice of some of his peers and ignoring warnings about “going native,” Wharton decides to involve the people of Kapa‘au in the conservation of their statue and soon finds himself immersed in complex political, social, and cultural considerations, including questions about representations of the Native Hawaiian past: Who should decide what is represented and how? And once a painting or sculpture exists, how should it be conserved?

The Painted King examines professional authority and community involvement while providing a highly engaging and accessible look at “activist conservation” at work, wherever it may be found.

77 color illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. ix-x

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1. A Painted King

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pp. 1-15

I FIRST SAW THE SCULPTURE in the spring of 1996. Fearful I would drive right by it, I proceeded carefully through the small town of Kapa‘au, scanning the land around each of the historic buildings. I knew it stood in front of an 1893 courthouse from the sugar plantation days. ...

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2. Creating a “Pacific Hero”

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pp. 16-32

MOST OF THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS about the sculpture’s commission reside in several well-guarded boxes in the Hawai‘i State Archives in Honolulu.1 I often research old correspondence to prepare my recommendations for conservation, but this was a rare treasure trove. The handwritten letters between the artist and the commissioning body ...

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3. Shipwreck

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pp. 33-49

ON AUGUST 21, 1880, the sculpture left Bremen, Germany, en route to Honolulu aboard the ship George F. Haendel. Although details in the accounts I found vary, the ship encountered a storm in the south Atlantic off the coast of Argentina. A fire broke out, then the ship struck a reef and sank to the bottom of the sea near the Falkland Islands. ...

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4. Return to Kohala

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pp. 50-66

I RETURNED TO NORTH KOHALA once again on September 3, 1999. The local project committee suggested that we announce our plans at the annual ukulele and hula festival. This annual event with its celebration of musicians and hula artists attracts local residents whom I was told would not attend a public meeting about the sculpture. ...

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5. Local Style

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pp. 67-75

I WANTED TO LEARN HOW people in North Kohala conceive of their community, including how individuals define groups and how they think about participation privileges. This was directly relevant to the questions of how to conserve the sculpture and whose opinions should count in determining its conservation. ...

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6. How People Think about Their Sculpture

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pp. 76-102

AS I CAME TO KNOW people in North Kohala and understand the history that brought so many different people together from distant places, I also learned of the sculpture’s place in their lives. Listening to old-timers and newcomers talk about the sculpture gave me a picture of how people think about themselves in relation to the past, and to Native Hawaiian culture. ...

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7. The Community Takes Sides

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pp. 103-123

OUR FIRST TASK WAS TO get people thinking about the sculpture in a new way—not just as a spiritual, educational, political, and economic object, but as a “conservation object.” By now, I knew the difficulties of getting older folks, including respected kūpuna, involved in public activities. ...

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8. Decision

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pp. 124-141

WHO DECIDES AND HOW TO decide were in the hands of the local project team. They met and debated these questions behind the scenes during the months of community discussion. The question of “who decides” paralleled other concerns in the community over the status and rights of Native Hawaiians and respected kūpuna. ...

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9. On the Scaffolding

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pp. 142-163

I RETURNED TO NORTH KOHALA in February 2001 to finally perform the hands-on conservation work on the scaffolding. Michael Jones flew in from Honolulu and picked up his truck full of supplies at the shipping dock. We checked into Nani’s guesthouse and met with Nalani to strategize our first steps. ...

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10. Looking to the Future

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pp. 164-174

AFTER CELEBRATIONS ON KAMEHAMEHA DAY 2001, I returned to my life as an art conservator on the mainland. Yet much had changed for me. I had a new sense of how community participation could influence my practice, but I wondered what effect the project had on the community itself. ...

Appendix 1: Hawaiian Glossary

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pp. 175-176

Appendix 2: Significant Dates in the Early History of the Kamehameha Sculpture

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pp. 177-178


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pp. 179-184


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pp. 185-192


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pp. 193-203

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861087
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834951

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 794925377
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Painted King

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public sculpture -- Conservation and restoration -- Hawaii -- Kapaau -- Citizen participation.
  • Kapaau (Hawaii) -- Buildings, structures, etc. -- Conservation and restoration.
  • Kamehameha Statue (Kapaau, Hawaii).
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